[By audible reading,] I mean to indicate something more than the reading of poetry aloud. I mean to indicate the reading of poetry not merely for the sensual ear, but for the mind’s ear as well; yet the mind’s ear can be trained only by way of the other, and the matter, practically considered, comes inescapably back to the reading of poetry aloud.
—Yvor Winters, “The Audible Reading of Poetry”

Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.
—E. B. White

Poetry readings are like mice, largely unnoticed, though once you’ve become aware of them you begin to see them everywhere. Slams, spoken word, open mics, national recitation competitions—there are more modes and venues for live poetry than ever before. Then come the universities and bookstores and what W. H. Auden referred to ruefully as being “On the Circuit,” by which he meant singing for one’s supper as a famous poet on the reading or lecture circuit: “Since Merit but a dunghill is,/ I mount the rostrum unafraid:/ Indeed, ’twere damnable to ask/ If I am overpaid.”

For the most part, the proliferation of poetry readings bodes no ill and goes a long way toward restoring poetry’s ancient and fundamental connection to the human voice. The page has much to offer: it provides an object for study. It performs vital work both in visual terms and in the preservation and dissemination of poetry (though the Internet now does a better job in these respects), but, for my money, the poem exists primarily for the ear. “The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader,” wrote Robert Frost. As critics and poets from Whitman and Dickinson to I. A. Richards and Paul Fussell have noted, poetry is a corporeal sensation, akin to dancing or singing; meter exists not on the page but in the bodies of the reciter and listener. As the prosodist Thomas Cable reminded me recently, The Oxford English Dictionary ties the metrical “foot” directly to “the movement of the foot in beating time.” As Fussell points out in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form: “The ‘body swayed to music’ of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’ is a sort of emblem of the reader responding to silent metrical effects. A kind of motionless, silent dancing is what the reader seems to be doing when he is responding metrically—as he must—to his own silent reading of a poem.” As Yvor Winters argues, the only tutor for this kind of silent reading is audible reading.

Hearing an author read his work aloud, I frequently feel that I have understood it for the first time. Aspects of the work that I’d missed in silent reading come clear. I never realized how funny Middlemarch was until my wife and I took turns reading it to each other on a cross-country car trip. A friend told me recently that the same thing happened to him with the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake at a Bloomsday celebration in New York. I recently spent an afternoon with the British poet laureate Andrew Motion, who said that, as he saw it, the notion of a poet finding his or her “voice” is directly connected to the poet’s own speaking voice; his examples included the BBC English of Philip Larkin and the mandarin mid-Atlantic melodies of Anthony Hecht. One might add the sonorous barking of Geoffrey Hill (one of our greatest readers of poetry), along with Larkin and Ted Hughes, as described in Seamus Heaney’s splendid essay “Englands of the Mind.” Motion added that, when he was writing his biography of Larkin, he dictated a draft of the entire book into a tape recorder so that he could test each sentence on the voice and revise accordingly. This is partly what Michael Elbow is referring to in Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, when he describes “speaking onto the page.”

If auditory reading is essential to the life of poetry, why is it that I typically equate the idea of attending a poetry reading with a trip to the dentist? Strike that. I have a wonderful dentist, who is genial and completely pain-free, nothing like most poetry readings. After the best performances of poetry, one feels enlivened and elevated, much as one does after hearing Placido Domingo (now singing baritone roles) or viewing an exhibition of Poussin landscapes. A transporting and memorable communication takes place, and it is worth remembering in this context that “aesthetic” refers at its root to sensation. That is why it is particularly dispiriting to hear poets who give no thought to the vocal presentation of their poems, as if Domingo never practiced his scales or Poussin never studied perspective. Instead, these desultory readers adopt, either by default or instinct, a repetitive rising inflection, which repels the ear and bears no relation to sense. It’s what
G. Burns Cooper, in
Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse, calls the Generic American Poetry Contour: “a slight but sustained rise at the end of each line or intonation phrase.” Here is the example Cooper provides (with my thanks to the critic Natalie Gerber):

I never met a purple cowww,
I never hope to see onnne,
But I can tell youu
here and nowww
I’d rather seee
than bee onne.
Thank you very much. [bow]

One of the reasons people fall into this odd singsong may be, as Cooper suggests, that “it serves to mark the language as poetic” and is therefore “pragmatically very effective” in that regard. He hastens to add that this imposed melody “is often not aesthetically effective.” Copper’s thoughtful generosity, his benefit of the doubt, nettles me a bit. Shouldn’t a poem’s language by definition be poetic and deeply so, without any imposed vocal indicators? The cases in which that would be aesthetically effective would have to be relative outliers, if one accepts Auden’s sense of poetry as “memorable speech.” It can be common speech or hieratic speech, comic or scathing, but the truth is people don’t talk in droning rising inflections! And there’s a good reason why: sense makes a particular sound. One can promote the musical aspects of a vocal performance, but not at the cost of the “sound of sense.”

This phrase—as well as “sentence sounds”—comes, of course, from Robert Frost. For Frost, thought and meaning in a poem were coterminous with the human voice: “The brute tones of our human throat that may once have been all our meaning. I suppose there is one for every feeling we shall ever feel, yes and for every thought we shall ever think. Such is the limitation of our thought.” A sentence makes two kinds of sounds. First there is the music of “meaning conveyed by word and syntax.” Sound conveys to the hearer the main elements of the sentence along with a host of subordinate phrases and clauses—all with the voice, heard either silently or aloud. As proof of this, listen to any great Shakespearean actor. Paul Scofield, for example, could organize and clarify with the pitch of his voice elaborate periods, which run over a dozen or more lines. Where he means to continue at the end of a phrase or clause, his voice rises. Where he means to conclude his thought (or Hamlet’s or Malvolio’s thought), his music lowers toward a full stop. In between, his vocal pitch stair-steps through a host of lists and contrastive stresses, keeping each in its place and in perfect relation to the whole. As a further example of Scofield’s skill, listen to the Naxos recording of Scofield’s King Lear (2001), with a full cast, including Kenneth Branagh as a hugely affecting and musical Fool. Scofield’s Lear has been voted by the RSC as the greatest Shakespeare performance in living memory, and this late recording by him is the finest by far that I have ever heard. At play’s end, his vocal instrument keens and rages, slowly, painfully, through “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you are men of stones,” encompassing in this single pentameter most of the five stages of grieving. This sense of pure sound must be what Frost is referring to when he says, “The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.” Of course, we all make this music of sense instinctively when we speak to one another, but then we foolishly eject it for some reason when we get up to read poetry aloud.

The second sound of sense tends toward the mystical. “I shall show the sentence sound saying all that the sentence conveys with little or no help from the meaning of the words. I shall show the sentence sound opposing the sense of the words as in irony. And so till I establish a distinction between the grammatical sentence and the vital sentence.” The work of the vital sentence, as opposed to the grammatical one, has to do with the communication of thought and emotion through “music,” which in poetic terms is rhythm broadly construed, e.g. meter, a range of sonic effects, diction, syntax, and even imagery and thematic tissue. In “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism,” T. S. Eliot speaks of “meaning” as separate from (and, he is tempted to add, extraneous to) the real work of the poem:

The chief use of the “meaning” of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice piece of meat for the house-dog.

This is E. B. White’s point about “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”: one tomorrow conveys the meaning but the other two cast a rhythmic spell that is the line’s real work, a specific emotion conveyed by the music of the words. Of course, no writer is more generous than Shakespeare in this regard: “Once you find the heart beat and the speed of it, it really does play you,” the brilliant English Shakespearean Rory Kinnear said recently, during his stint as Hamlet at the National. Beyond denotation, sound conveys the connotations of words, which Yvor Winters understood as constituting the emotional charge of language. Sound carries the emotion and is, in this way, itself the meaning.

The reason why poets fuss over every word has as much to do with sound as anything. A word may mean the correct thing but fail to express the precise feeling because of a deficit on the level of music or rhytmn. As quoted by Walter Kerr in How Not to Write a Play, W. H. Auden puts it this way:

A poet writes “The chestnut’s comfortable root” and then changes this to “The chestnut’s customary root.” In this alteration there is no question of replacing one emotion with another, or of strengthening an emotion, but of discovering what the emotion is. The emotion is unchanged, but waiting to be identified like a telephone number one cannot remember. “8357. No, that’s not it. 8557. 8457, no it’s on the tip of my tongue, wait a minute, I’ve got it, 8657. That’s it.”

The discovery of the emotion, I want to suggest, inheres as much in the sound, as in the denotative meaning of the words. For Frost, this sound of sense “is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound—pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist.” Without question, Frost was a great artist in exactly these terms. No other American poet has made sound mean as much, or to put it another way sound and sense are so seamlessly wedded as to form a unified expression, sound as pure form.

A number of Frost’s poems come to mind in this regard, though “Mending Wall” exists so consistently as an aural emblem of its theme that I want to walk through passages of it line by line. Everyone will, of course, know the famous first line of the poem (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”), and, indeed, the poem’s familiarity is a considerable challenge to its just appreciation—much as the folky familiarity of Frost’s farmer-poet persona once hid the “terrible” Frost from view. If one were to stage the little scene of two men repairing a stone wall in the woods, the mise en scène would look roughly like this: x | y. One man stands stage left, the other stage right, with the wall between them (“We keep the wall between us as we go”). The poem is about division and the impulse to bridge this division, though it’s important to note that the speaker who questions the necessity of the wall does so only to himself and not out loud to his neighbor. He is in this way complicit in the wall’s perpetuation.

Each spring the two men meet to perform their yearly ritual of repairing the wall, which, due to unknown reasons, falls into disrepair each winter. How many men are in the poem? Two. How many times does the line “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” occur in the poem? Twice. How many times does “Good fences make good neighbors” occur? Again, twice. The first of these lines begins the poem; the other ends it, highlighting the two poles of the argument. Looking closer, the poem is a relentless dividing into two, rhetorically and on the level of diction. Here is the opening:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun; And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

A pair of “thats” and a pair of “ands” divide the sentence into twinned elements. (The gaps are wide enough for “two” to pass abreast.) The next sentence extends the twinning, first with “work” = “thing” and then the doubled verbs of “come after” and “made repair.”

The work of hunters is another thing: I have come after them and made repair Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

Not “one stone on another,” mind you, but one stone on a stone. The repetition is percussive. The doubling (which continues throughout) is enacted upon the ear. Then there are Frost’s clausal repetitions:

          The gaps I mean, No one has seen them made or heard them made,


And set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go.

One hears these repetitions and divisions as a bodily rocking, back and forth, to and fro, as the rhetorical stresses mount up in twos; Frost has created a verbal music one can almost dance to. Again, the poem expresses division into two:

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And a further doubling:

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

Frost reiterates the situation:

Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, One on a side.

He then points out that the two men do not need the wall to keep their properties distinct:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

The terms are then redoubled as a chiasmus:

My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

We then get the first instance of the poem’s closing line, which itself contains a doubling:

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

By this point in the poem the pattern is so fully established that it becomes the very music though which the poem moves:

“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, . . . ”

Then the opening line returns, with a twinning on “elves”:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down. I could say “Elves” to him, But it’s not elves exactly . . .

“Stone” is doubled a second time, here in a decidedly minor key:

          I see him there Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top In each hand, like an old stone savage armed.

The pairing continues through to the end:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees. He will not go behind his father’s saying, And he likes having thought of it so well He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

In his second book of poems, North of Boston (1914), Frost includes this note on the verso across from “Mending Wall,” which begins the collection: “Mending Wall takes up the theme where A Tuft of Flowers in A Boy’s Will laid it down.” That earlier poem, from Frost’s debut collection, is worked out in rhymed couplets. It concludes:

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach. “Men work together,” I told him from the heart, “Whether they work together or apart.”

The end of “Mending Wall” is wonderfully ambiguous—not the clearcut sentiment one is tempted to construe, in which the speaker’s vision of a world where clear divisions are unnecessary trumps the need for amicable separation. Yet the two men “work together” as good neighbors, despite their difference of opinion about the wall, a difference that, as noted above, the speaker keeps to himself. Perhaps this is the theme that the poem “takes up,” or one of them at least.

In the music of the poem, Frost engages the abstract vitality of our speech. Much as George Herbert is able to create, in Joseph Summers’s term, a “hieroglyph” of his subject though its pattern of lines and letters on the page, Frost creates an aural analog of the poem’s meaning, in which the sound is the sense. The compulsive divisions in the language (included by Frost either consciously or un-) work out that division in the ear. I’m not sure if this fundamental structural principle in the poem has been elaborated previously; if it has, I am unaware of it. All I can say is that I first heard it before I saw it. I own a recording of Frost reading the poem, which I listened to repeatedly as an aid to committing the poem to memory. To hear Frost growling out “one stone on a stone” is to get the music of the whole argument of the poem in one’s head. I think Frost would be the first to agree that one cannot fully understand a poem, its inmost sense, until one hears it read aloud.

For several years now I have taught a course for poets in reading poetry aloud. It’s not only that poetry readings have become one of the most common ways in which readers come across new work. Reading aloud is an integral part of composition. Almost immediately the students realize that the audible reading of poetry leads to revision: some part of the expression is awkward or infelicitous and needs reworking. As poets gain experience in presenting their work to an audience, they begin to compose with that audience in mind, hewing close to the way that sound conveys meaning to an audience. As in “Mending Wall,” it is the bars to such intimate communication that poetry is meant to bridge.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 8, on page 32
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